ON THE BOOKS: A Great American Novel About an Ordinary Man


In the 1960s, my uncle ran a large library, housed in a room he called “his library,” facts that seemed both wonderful and exotic to me when I was a child. When I visited him in the summer he would encourage me to browse his shelves and read everything I liked. He gave little advice and didn’t forbid anything, not even the “Kama Sutra” or “In Cold Blood”, although both were so confused and terrified to me that I didn’t finish either. other.

I also didn’t finish – or start – a book called “Stoner” at the time, although I remember its buttery yellow jacket with a drawing of a window, through which three columns could be seen partially. obscured behind the branches of a tree. For some reason this image stuck with me, and when I encountered an identical first edition at a New Orleans second-hand bookstore when I was in college, I bought it for $ 3. .

I acquired it more as a nostalgic talisman; it has not been read for a while. But eventually I opened it up and read the first few paragraphs:

William Stoner entered the University of Missouri in 1910, at the age of 19. Eight years later, at the height of World War I, he obtained his doctorate in philosophy and accepted a post of instructor at the same university, where he taught until his death in 1956. He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remember him vividly after taking his classes. ..

“A casual student who encounters this name may lazily wonder who William Stoner was, but he rarely pursues his curiosity beyond a casual question. for the older ones, its name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and for the younger ones, it’s just a sound that evokes no sense of the past and no identity they can associate with. or be associated with their career. “

These paragraphs are an accurate summary of the life of the protagonist, a calm and unremarkable man who leads a banal life. Stoner was born into rural poverty to young parents trying to get into farming in central Missouri. At the county officer’s request, they send their only boy to college to study agriculture.

He arrives at the university a boor dressed in black cloth, and fumbles during his first year with a dazed step, paying his tuition and subsistence by working on a nearby farm owned by relatives. Then a fortuitous remark from his English teacher Archer Sloan arouses in Stoner a certain inarticulate desire. The young man falls in love with intellectual pursuit, with learning. He therefore does not return to work on the farm, but stays in school.

He was there during World War I, although his classmates were doing their patriotic chore. One of them, a dark, intelligent and mysterious boy with whom he could have formed a true friendship, does not return. Another, Gordon Finch, who seems to have few gifts outside of ruddy sociability, becomes one of the college leaders and Stoner’s lifelong friend.

Stoner marries a nervous woman from a family in St. Louis with pretensions and a little money. Edith is mercurial and materialistic and deaf to Stoner’s muse. She demands a house they can’t afford, forcing Stoner to borrow from his father, a banker who commits suicide when the stock market crashes in 1929 and believes his family and bank are ruined. They have a daughter, Grace, who makes Stoner happy.

But out of jealousy, Edith leads a campaign to alienate father and daughter and ultimately succeeds; Stoner almost leaves the house to research his university offices. He looks at his classes decimated by World War II. When his mentor Sloan dies, he is shaken by the indifference of the university. And when Stoner refuses to pass a student he considers insolent and lazy, he makes a bitter enemy of his department head, who relegates him to teaching composition in first year and would have fired him if Finch, now the dean of studies had not intervened.

Middle-aged and lonely, Stoner suddenly finds himself embroiled in a passionate affair with a college student, Katherine, who is almost as literate as he is. For one season, the veil is lifted and Stoner realizes a full measure of the life that has been denied to him. Even Edith gives her tacit approval.

It cannot go on. And Stoner emerges stoically from his ashes, determined to face the rest of his life as his parents did, taking things as they come and doing what he has to do. Stoner is a hero because he’s a man who does what he has to do, a man who persists.

â–  â–  â– 

“Stoner” is a remarkable book, a hymn to work and to the small lives that most of us necessarily lead. It was written by John Williams, who died in Fayetteville in 1994 and won the National Book Award for his 1972 novel “Augustus”, an epistolary novel about the Roman Emperor.

While “Stoner” has something like a semi-autobiography, Williams’ life story only has a few points of congruence with that of his character. Williams’ grandparents were farmers in Texas, his parents were poor, and he attended and taught at the University of Missouri, which he attended as part of the GI Bill.

He served in World War II, surviving a plane crash that killed five of his colleagues. He developed an addiction to alcohol, his widow Nancy Gardner Williams told Paris Review a few years ago. But he was an integrated man, she said, “all of a piece. He was all one. He was not contradicting or contradicting himself … He was a good, good, good man. . “

The University of Arkansas Press reprinted “Stoner” in 1988; I also had a copy of this edition. I think I gave it away. And somehow I lost the other copy – too many moves, too many boxes. I checked the internet to see how much it would cost to replace it. I found a signed first edition for $ 6,500; unsigned in good condition for $ 1,850.

A better option for most of us might be the recently released Library of America volume “John Williams: Collected Novels” ($ 40), which features “Augustus” and “Butcher’s Crossing” from the 1960s as well as “Stoner “.

It wasn’t until recently that I realized this is one of those notoriously underrated novels. Eight years ago, The New Yorker published an article about it under the title “The Greatest American Novel You’ve Never Heard Of.”

It is probably not that. Because more people have heard of it than, say, “Off for the Sweet Hereafter” by TR Pearson, “A Man in Charge” by Morris Philipson or “The Choiring of the Trees” by Donald Harington.

There are a lot of great novels that we haven’t heard of, but we’ve heard of “Stoner”. It is well known to have critics who find Williams’ portrayals of Stoner’s antagonists problematic – Edith, the cheeky student, brooding department head. (The latter two are physically disfigured, which looks a bit like 19th century Roger Chillingsworth-ish.)

Again, it’s a hymn to work, to chase, told in precise and direct language, like Hemingway but without the selfish bravado. It’s a great American novel.

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About Stuart M. McFarland

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